I Already Miss George Hickman. And I'm Not Alone
Aug. 22, 2012
By Gregg Bell
SEATTLE - I already miss George Hickman.
The beloved friend at Husky football and basketball games for six decades, more recently as an usher and teams' inspiration in the Alaska Airlines Arena tunnel or the Husky Stadium press box, died Sunday two weeks after his 88th birthday.
He is survived by his wife Doris, their four children, three grandchildren, one great-grandchild - and a legion stretching from UW to his native St. Louis that adored him.
Last December, Hickman addressed the Huskies in the ballroom of their team hotel hours before the Apple Cup. Keith Price had his arm around him afterward. UW then thrashed Washington State by 17 points.
Everyone noticed when Hickman missed much of the Huskies' basketball season last spring because he was ill. Yet he was back to work two weekends ago, greeting those entering the press box at CenturyLink Field with a handshake and a smile before a Seahawks' exhibition game.
The last time I saw him, a couple months back inside the northwest door of Hec Ed Pavilion, he was noticeably weakened and slighter in his purple UW polo shirt and gold arena sweater vest. But he still grasped my extended hand with his right hand and earnestly gripped the top of my wrist as he always did with his other hand, the one below the 1993 Huskies Rose Bowl watch the team gave him for being instrumental to it.
He then said with his cheerful smile, "It's so great to see you, Gregg."
No, trust me Mr. Hickman, it was so great to see you.
Hickman high fives the Washington men's basketball team, a ritual that became a tradition for both the men's and women's teams.
"It was an honor to know him and to be a part of his life," Huskies football coach Steve Sarkisian said Monday, speaking for just about everyone who ever caught George's keen eye and sincerity.
Lorenzo Romar's basketball teams have passed Hickman on their ways from and to the locker room onto and off their home floor for the last 10 years.
Win or lose, those Huskies were always better for getting to see him.
"He's definitely one of those guys you wish you could have seen him one more time before he left us," Romar said. "Talk about a guy who leaves everyone he comes in contact with feeling a little bit better, that was George Hickman."
He sometimes wore a purple, "GymDawgs" sweatshirt from Joanne Bowers' gymnastics team. The volleyball team loved him. The women's basketball team adored him. So did coach Heather Tarr's UW softball team. It had him throw out a ceremonial first pitch a couple seasons ago. As the crowd roared, George beamed, as usual, while wearing a purple Washington softball jersey.
So many people loved Hickman - and not just Huskies.
Hickman worked Seahawks games when the NFL team borrowed Husky Stadium during the construction of its new downtown stadium about a dozen years ago. The Seahawks liked him so much they asked him to work their games downtown, too. He did that from the stadium's opening in 2002 through the last home game the Seahawks played on Aug. 11.
The team had George raise its beloved "12th Man" flag at a game in November. It's an honor usually reserved for Seahawks Ring of Honor players and others like them.
"He was always quick with a handshake and a smile to those entering the press box," a Seahawks statement said Monday, "and when asked how he was doing Hickman would answer, `Blessed to be here.'"
Romar played for UW from 1978-80 and took over as the Huskies' coach in 2002. So he's seen Hickman at games for 34 years.
"He's been here every home game I can remember," Romar said. "He's been here to shake your hand and to encourage you. There were games and times we weren't doing very well, the team wasn't doing very well and (he'd say), `Hang in there!' He always had an encouraging word.
"George Hickman donated money to our basketball program. He was always looking to help someone. Whenever I came in contact with him it was all about the other person. It was never about George. And that is very, very rare."
That was my favorite part of this Seattle treasure.
After arriving in Seattle in 2006 I'd missed national, Associated Press writing deadlines to visit with Hickman in the press boxes at the Seahawks' stadium, Husky Stadium and at Alaska Airlines Arena. He'd met my kids at one game, so then he always asked about them. Or my wife. Or my background.
Once it came up I had been an Army officer. After that, Hickman began saluting me. I think the first one was before a Seahawks game sometime in 2007. It was a crisp, ramrod-straight salute, too, the kind only someone with military experience would know to exquisitely execute. "You were in the military!" I exclaimed. "What branch?"
Only then, after countless, firm, old-school handshakes, earnest, look-you-in-the-eye conversations and genuine interest in my stories did George Hickman reveal to me his story.
Hickman was one of the original Tuskegee Airmen.
FROM SPIT ON TO REVERED
Turns out, he didn't merely serve. He served in as remarkable and significant a unit the U.S. military has ever had.
He was a member of the original Tuskegee Airmen, our nation's first black military pilots and ground crews that fought in World War II.
He was also the grandson of slaves. Hickman's father had a third-grade education, but he encouraged his son and George's older sister to learn how things worked as they grew up in St. Louis. Dad specifically helped George pursue an interest in aviation that began for him as a curious 6-year-old looking into the sky above St. Louis' west end. It evolved into George buying model airplanes for 10 cents each at the neighborhood Woolworth's.
Those dime-store planes led to him building ones with his own, tiny, custom-crafted engines. He eventually qualified for the new, segregated program for pilots the Army Air Corps ran from 1942-46 at an airfield in Tuskegee, Ala.
He actually went through the Tuskegee program twice. He was initially eliminated from pilot training in 1943 -- for nothing worse than having conviction and courage. As a cadet captain he called out white superior officers for the mistreatment of a fellow black cadet. The white officers effectively blocked him from flying.
"I felt like I had really been mistreated," he told me in 2009 for a story I wrote then for The AP.
Undeterred, he re-entered the Tuskegee program and graduated from it as a crewman instead. He served in Europe as a flight mechanic during the war.
He returned home a victor, but not to an adoring, celebrating or at even respectful America. He came home to discrimination, exclusion from victory parades -- and, as Hickman recalled, the humiliation of being pushed off sidewalks in the South and even spit at while in uniform.
No wonder the grandson of slaves told me days before Barak Obama was inaugurated in January 2009 that he never thought he'd see the first black president of the United States.
As a cadet captain he called out white superior officers for the mistreatment of a fellow black cadet. The white officers effectively blocked him from flying.
"I didn't dream that far," he said.
We were in the Husky legends center that day, on the lake side and bottom floor of the Graves Annex building next to Hec Ed. He was still shaking his head as he recalled to me his memories of segregated America: seeing ghastly photos of the slaying of teenager Emmett Till; visiting Selma, Ala., years before Martin Luther King Jr. led the civil-rights movement there.
Hickman left the military, went to graduate school and in 1955 moved to Seattle to work for Boeing. He spent 29 years with the aeronautical giant. The kid who used to build 10-cent model airplanes from Woolworth's in St. Louis was ultimately a senior manager in charge of accounting for $185 million in Boeing training equipment. And he tallied invoices and purchase orders by hand.
"You know when I got my first computer? Two days before I retired," he said, chuckling.
During his Boeing career he began ushering at Husky Stadium, in the mid-1960s. But the term "usher" is too generic to aptly describe George's presence at the stadium and the arena next door.
What other usher high-fives players, coaches - even kids of coaches -- and encourages players before and after every game, regardless of outcome, regardless of sport? I still have the picture my AP photographer colleague Elaine Thompson took for that 2009 national story of Hickman high-fiving smiling members of the volleyball team in his tunnel before a match.
What other college stadium usher's passing is national news? Or causes outpouring of love and sadness from professional athletes across the sports nation?
Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Mason Foster tweeted Monday: "R.I.P George Hickman UW usher, former Tuskegee Airmen and a great person!" "No, not George. Love that dude," Quincy Pondexter tweeted. "1 of the original Tuskegee airman and 1 of biggest UW supporters" Sarkisian smiled when I asked him after Monday's football practice about his memories of Hickman.
The coach said every time he walked into a Huskies basketball game George greeted him "and the first thing he wants to do is give my wife a hug and high-five my kids."
"My son when we first got here he was 5 or 6 years old and he can't sit still at a basketball game," Sarkisian said. "So George takes him out into the hallway and is bouncing the ball with him and hanging out with him so I can yell at the refs.
"It just speaks to the type of person that he was. He always welcomed people with open arms. He always had a great smile on his face. He was always great to me and my family. I know he was that way with all of our players.
"He won't be forgotten, that's for sure."
Hickman was a fixture in Husky athletics for decades.
EVEN THE PRESIDENT HONORED GEORGE
In 2007 Hickman and his fellow Tuskegee Airmen traveled to Washington, D.C., under the Capitol's rotunda to receive the Congressional Gold Medal. That is the highest civilian honor Congress can give.
Less than two years later, in January 2009, Obama invited Mr. Hickman and his Tuskegee brethren back to Washington to attend his inauguration.
"My career in public service was made possible by the path heroes like the Tuskegee Airmen trail-blazed," Obama said then.
Hickman watched just below the podium with former members of Congress, other VIPs and his grandson Ryan Melonson, then a senior at Howard University. George was in his Tuskegee Airmen uniform -- navy-blue coat, adorned with medals, over gray pants.
Hickman said before he left on that trip he was hoping to meet Obama. "And the reason I hope so is his words were so strong about understanding he is riding on the shoulders of the Tuskegee Airmen, who had to fight prejudice and hatred, and that he wouldn't be here without them," George said.
In the last couple basketball seasons I often jogged by George in a rush, late from filing a Husky game story in getting to Romar's postgame media addresses near Hickman's post. Each time, he would see me and, of course, salute.
No matter how rushed or late I was, I made sure to stop jogging and return the formal greeting, per the military custom of never saluting on the run. I felt I owed him at least that for his constant kindness. Yet I always felt badly in those times I wasn't able to chat longer with him because of my work.
"That's OK," Mr. Hickman would tell me sincerely, as always. "You have a job to do."
Now that he's no longer here -- now that I can no longer find him at his trusted place to talk to and laugh with and appreciate life -- it sure wasn't as necessary to rush off as I had thought it was.
About Gregg Bell Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for The Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.